CHINATOWN should be worried. Just beyond its main artery, Gerrard Street, lies a triumvirate of restaurants muscling in on its territory with militantly spicy dishes and brazen authenticity. When they arrived in Soho, Bar Shu, Baozi Inn and Ba Shan were a celebration of flavours from the Sichuanese province of China in gorgeous lanterned settings – a stark difference from the repeated Peking duck that most of Chinatown was serving up. They helped open London to the possibility of great regional Chinese food: lesser-known but no less tasty dishes such as “fish-fragrant” aubergines and pock-marked mother Chen’s bean curd, and sea bass – tender from a poach in oil, hot with chilli and lip-tingling Sichuan pepper.
We’re used to the plethora of food and takeaways from one of the UK’s earliest immigrant cuisines – after all, it first bedded down in the country over a century ago. But London has recently embraced food from different provinces of China. If you’re prepared for a little exploration beyond Chinatown, you’ll be rewarded with authenticity and variety. Fuchsia Dunlop, food-writer and consultant to the Bar Shu restaurants, has been partly responsible for an exciting development in Chinese cuisine – the regionalisation of Chinese food. “There’s absolutely a trend for regionality,” says Dunlop, “Fifteen years ago, all Chinese food was Cantonese, or Anglo-Cantonese. In the last decade there’s been huge diversification of people who are travelling from London and the UK to mainland China.”
Food-wise, China is more of a continent than a country as it’s made up of provinces, such as Fujian (known for its soups), and Hunan. Regionalisation is inevitable. But the move away from familiar cuisines follows on from the fashion already within China. “There’s a big craze within China itself for Sichuanese food,” Dunlop says. “There are Sichuan restaurants all over the mainland and the craze has been brought over here.” Not only is there a guaranteed market of Chinese people in London, but also with holiday-makers and business travellers off to cities like Shanghai, the level of education is ever higher. Dunlop launched a Hunanese menu for Ba Shan this time last year – a menu hotter and spicier than the Sichuan counterparts. It’s now a firm favourite within the Chinese community.
But smart Soho restaurants are not to everyone’s tastes. Easy-going and unfussy places have popped up in unlikely areas of London. Stray to Camberwell and you may stumble across Silk Road, which specialises in cuisine from Xinjiang – the province that shares borders with Mongolia and Kazakhstan. There’s Chilli Cool in Euston, Sichuan favourite among food bloggers and Chinese-food obsessives such as Mr Noodles (eatlovenoodles.blogspot.com). And then there’s Noodle Oodle, canteen-esque and on the wrong end of Oxford street, where you can pick up a good cheap bowl of freshly made hand-pulled noodles (la mien) for under £7. And Bayswater, a spit away from Notting Hill, has a string of classic restaurants that line the path to Hyde Park.
Baker Street is the unlikely home to well-loved classics. For good old-fashioned dim sum, the Chinese tea-house occasion when the family get together and commune over lunch, there’s Phoenix Palace. This is the place where young sit with old and clack chopsticks over chicken’s feet. If you loiter by the door and peer at the photos, you’ll be reassured that as the food’s good enough for the High Commissioner of Hong Kong, then it’s good enough for us. Then down the road is the much-lauded Royal China and Royal China Club that commands respect within and outside Chinese cirles. Live crab and fresh prawns are used every day for their dim sum. Jeremy Pang, head chef at School of Wok (www.schoolofwok.co.uk) is a fan. “Royal China has made a name for itself for good reason. Whichever one you book into, you’ll always get a good meal.” Fuchsia Dunlop agrees, and favours the Canary Wharf branch: “It’s excellent for dim sum. Sunday lunch there on a sunny day is just perfect.” Go for the specialities from their dim sum chef, Henry Chow, which range from the traditional to the opulent. At Royal China Club, you can order prawn and pork siu mai dumplings with a whole baby abalone on top.
It’s easy for those looking for their dim sum hit on a Sunday afternoon to pooh-pooh high-end Chinese restaurants, but with increasing business links with China, there’s demand for the occasion restaurant. “There’s much more high-end Chinese activity in London,” says Dunlop, “and a real market for diplomatic entertainment, embassy entertaining, visitors from the Bank of China. We’ve reached that standard of Chinese socialisation.” It’s true you probably won’t pop to places such as Min Jiang in Kensington every week for a char siu bao and tea. But when it’s one of the only places where you can get real Peking duck and pancakes Beijing style, it has to be top of its game to impress those who have just flown in from China. It’s one to remember the next time you’re entertaining a delegation from the Bank of China.
So, when you next need that quick Chinese fix, think beyond the default of Chinatown and head to the corners of London, where you’ll experience the best of the provinces.